The Man Who Pushed Canada’s Conservatives Further to the Right

Ted Byfield, the founder of the far-right Alberta Report, left an indelible mark on Canadian conservatism. He was responsible for emboldening the most racist and anti-worker elements of the Right.

The wealthy patrons of the Reform Party were happy to use Ted Byfield and his Alberta Report to help mobilize a constituency of the angry, the zealous, and the unhinged as a battering ram for more aggressive austerity policies. Then the backers lost control.

On December 23, 2021, Ted Byfield, publisher of the Alberta Report, died. The conservative weekly’s readership peaked at around 400,000 per week in the late ’90s before disappearing in 2003. Upon his death, Byfield received gushing praise from current and former members of Parliament, premiers, and columnists alike.

Dubbed the “grand old man of the Canadian conservative movement,” Byfield made the case, in the pages of his magazine, for a new, more aggressive party of the Right. At the time, he may not have been widely read — but those who did read his paper had access to money and power.

Byfield and the Alberta Report were, for a time, the id of Canadian conservatism. The seldom-mentioned wealthy backers of the Reform Party — the largest component part of today’s Conservative Party of Canada — were only too happy to use Byfield and the Report to help mobilize a constituency of the angry, the zealous, and the unhinged as a battering ram for more aggressive austerity policies. Then, as often happens, the backers lost control.

Reactionary militants like Byfield can’t be accommodated in the straitlaced halls of power and often end up cast aside when they’re of no further use to party brass. They nevertheless leave their imprints on the character and complexion of the parties they energize.

Calgary’s Right-Wing Cabal

Through the 1970s, rivalries between the resource-intensive economies of Canada’s western provinces and the power brokers in the industrial east intensified. This tension expressed itself in the formation of new right-wing lobby groups like the Canada West Foundation and National Citizens Coalition. It was also marked, in Alberta, by the rise of fundamentalist and “separatist” political parties. But it found its purest expression in Ted Byfield’s Alberta Report.

For years, Byfield eagerly stumped for right-wing ideas, publishing oil bosses’ demands for tax cuts, punctuated by the occasional reactionary anti-Quebec outburst. In 1984, he doubled down on the distinctness of western Canadian conservatism in his back-page column and demanded a new right-wing party to oust the insufficiently conservative Tories.

The call was picked up by management consultant Preston Manning. Manning attached a copy of the magazine to a memo, which was addressed to Bob Muir of Dome Petroleum, Canadian Hunter Exploration cofounder James Gray, Canada West Foundation head David Elton, and local oligarch Francis Winspear.

The memo proposed a “Western Reform Movement” with “the funds to get the job done.” Two years later, in 1986, a coalition, galvanized by the memo, cleared the way for the founding of the Reform Party in 1987, with Manning at its head. Trevor Harrison notes that money alone was not up to the task of building a political base. For years after the proposal, and in spite of its slush fund, the Reform Party and Manning remained “reliant upon Byfield’s magazines to disseminate Reform’s messages.”

No Gays, Union Members, or Eastern Bastards Need Apply

Byfield started the Report in 1979, after his religious conversion to Anglicanism. Throughout the 1980s, his magazines combined Faith columns, tabloid news coverage, and his own Letters from the Publisher.

Like much of the Right at the time, the Report argued that youth crime was “the legacy of the ’60s, now yielding their bitter fruits,” that corporal punishment (especially spanking “with a leather strap”) would solve all manner of social ills, and that Alberta’s teachers’ unions needed to be destroyed.

On economic issues, Byfield took special offense at federal beef and oil regulations. He saw the overreach of what he called Big Government as a sign that perhaps “democracy will fail after all.” Byfield also called for the expanded privatization of schools and most state-run social services.

In 1986, the Report applauded the scabs (“an army of unemployed applicants”) who helped undermine UFCW’s striking Edmonton meatpacking workers at Gainers Inc. The magazine quoted serial white-collar fraudster Peter Pocklington, who was, at the time, CEO of Gainers Inc:

The unions are very self-serving. In Taiwan workers get $300 a month for the same job. And Taiwan isn’t that far away by air. They need to find out what the new realities of business are.

However, it is not for this standard right-wing fare that the Report is typically remembered. Its legacy in the public record stems largely from an infamous court case. In 1999, the Calgary Regional Health Authority won a court case “preserving the private, confidential nature” of patients’ health documents — against the Alberta Report.

According to the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, a group of “angry, pro-life nurses’” leaked pregnancy termination information to the Report. This breach in patient privacy provided the ground for several Report articles that accused one doctor — described as an “abortionist” — of “culpable homicide.” Health care workers, the journal noted, feared for their safety.

The magazine’s anti-abortion crusade was not without precedent. In 1984, a court ruling empowering women to access abortion services without a man’s permission was described by Byfield as “a judicial decision that takes us back to the pre-barbarian” era. Elsewhere, the magazine likened Prairie-wide abortion services to “a slightly smaller holocaust.” 

The Report was no kinder to the gay community, which it labeled “militant homosexuals.” It claimed that gay men wanted to adopt children only because “their lifestyle constantly brings them in contact with death.” “If they’re going to reproduce,” the Report claimed, “they have to do it politically, basically by taking over other people’s children.” Manning himself, as Reform Party leader, would later remark publicly that “homosexuality is destructive to the individual, and, in the long run, society.”

Not to be outdone in splenetic jeremiads against tolerance, Byfield, writing about holocaust denier James Keegstra — charged under hate crime legislation for promoting antisemitism in his classroom — penned a disturbingly sympathetic column. In it, he lamented, “We are now determined to be a loving, merciful, infinitely tolerant province, and so anybody who acts otherwise will be thrashed until he screams for mercy.”

Throughout the late 1980s, Byfield was a regular speaker at Reform Party conferences. The party’s “fiscal philosophy” — mandatory balanced budgets — was drafted and signed by his son, Link Byfield, and eagerly adopted by the party’s leadership.

Reform’s 1988 Platform and Statement of Principles was as ideological as the Report. It proposed mass privatization, a flat tax, ending oil price controls, scrapping closed shop protections for unions, and even abolishing minimum wage laws. Along with tough-on-crime measures, it warned that immigration must not be “designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada, as it increasingly seems to be.”

Manning, for his part, promoted regressive anti-worker policies as crucial to building a “New Canada” — marked by “a shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society” — but where profits could still be guaranteed. Yet, in spite of its influence, Byfield’s magazine was in receivership in early 1990.

Byfield was bailed out by retired Westburne Oil founder John Scrymgeour and his former board members. Asked by Byfield what he wanted done with the magazine, Scrymgeour told him, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

A Marginalized Vanguard

When the Tories collapsed in the 1993 election, Reform emerged as the largest party of the Right. By ascending to the starry firmament of the political establishment, it was forced to sand down its rough edges. Through meet and greets hosted by Conrad Black and billionaire Hal Jackman, the Reform leadership attempted to court Bay Street money and support from eastern power brokers. Manning agreed to cosmetic dental surgery, a new haircut, and laser eye surgery, pledged to form a “constructive opposition,” and promised to weed out extremists.

When asked about the presence of racists, conspiracy theorists, and hate-mongers in his party, Manning was fond of saying, “If you turn on a light, you’re going to attract bugs.” However, the bugs were increasingly a liability rather than just an embarrassment.

Other elements of the establishment, meanwhile, evinced a growing fondness for Reform. In 1995, Republican strategist David Frum worked to mend relationships between Reform voters and establishment Tories. His recruitment was clinched after he opined that the Tories “worried far too much about placating liberal opinion-mongers in Toronto, on issues ranging from homosexual rights to sanctions against South Africa.” Frum offered to write a glowing preface for Byfield’s column collection, The Book of Ted: Epistles from an Unrepentant Redneck.

The Reform Party’s new place in Canada’s corridors of power began to sit uneasily with the more populist elements of the Report. The magazine increasingly offered itself up as an outlet for those who thought that “Mr. Manning and his circle of advisors have too much control in a party that prides itself on bottom-up, not top-down, decision making.”

Heading into the 1997 election, another controversy erupted within the party. Looking to reach out to communities beyond its all-white caucus, several Reform MPs endorsed the candidacy of former Liberal staffer Rahim Jaffer for Edmonton-Strathcona. Jaffer’s opponents railed against him on the grounds that he had, as one Reform activist quoted in the Alberta Report put it, “foreign diseases” and “off-color skin.”

After the 1997 election, the Report became even more ideological. One article, on the forced sterilization of indigenous women, ran with the headline “Cashing in on Victimhood.” In another column, Link Byfield warned his readers that

where we have minorities which are not yet numerous and concentrated, we should not help them become so, as we are doing with our Indians. Nothing can come of it but trouble, sooner or later.

Soon thereafter, a column titled “To the Re-education Camp, Go!” offered a defense of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen from charges of antisemitism on the grounds that he supported Israel’s military campaign in the occupied territories.

Wishing Canada had its own Le Pen, the Report column claimed further:

Israel acts always in its own interest. One can quibble, perhaps, with its methods but not with its intent. Western governments, on the other hand, act without exception to eradicate their nations. In Canada, we are so frightened of the xenophiles that opposition to this eradication is expressed only fitfully and incoherently.

Subsequently, a column titled “The West Is the Best was even more explicit in proving the ground for future “Great Replacement” theorists:

The real nature of multiculturalism is European genocide. Canada simply does not exist as a cultural, economic, political or philosophical entity. It will disappear in 20 years. Nothing in the heart holds it together. It is ripe for the invasion which is occurring.

The white supremacist identity politics on display here, while undoubtedly hateful, was not without precedent. Race-baiting politics was always in the DNA of both the Report and Reform. Stan Waters, a close partner of construction magnate Fred Mannix and one of Reform’s early candidates, used the same language in the ’80s to defend white minority rule in South Africa: “South Africa should think twice before allowing majority rule because most black African countries live under tyranny.”

Byfield and William Gairdner, both regular speakers at Reform rallies, were also ardent defenders of apartheid — they were staunch opponents of what Gairdner called the “one party dictatorships of Black African countries.” Elsewhere Gairdner, demanding restrictions on non-white immigration, wrote that the “nation has the right to defend itself against demographic capture, or, if you prefer, against passive racial or cultural takeover.”

The End of the Party

In March 2000, after it failed to expand in the 1997 election, Manning prepared Reform’s 66,000 members to “kill off the party” so it could seek unity with the Tories. Meanwhile, the Report was declining. Its public offering failed to attract investor money and, between 1999 and 2002, it shed over ten thousand subscribers. With an aging readership, its impact and subscription roster was set to decline further. The final nail in the coffin, as Alberta Views noted, was that the Report’s past “bailers-out refused to do so again.” The magazine closed up shop in spring of 2003.

Byfield turned to more personal pursuits, penning multipart histories of Alberta and the crusades — celebrating the latter with chapter titles such as “The West finally strikes back at Islam.” He also took to blogging about Gay-Straight Alliances in schools (“sex clubs”), the specter of the “Muslim-run child sex ring,” and his own personal disagreements with the leaders of Canada’s conservative movement.

In 2011, when he was invited to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Reform’s founding alongside key Conservative cabinet members, he distanced himself from claims he helped found the modern Canadian right. “This is nonsense,” Byfield told the crowd, false modesty in check. “The Reform Party was a product of Preston Manning. The rest of us helped a bit.”

Byfield’s story is a reminder that the Right can’t ride to power without a mobilized base. Paradoxically, however, that base needs to be mobilized — largely against its own self-interest. This inevitably means leveraging fraught social issues for political advantage.

The Right is always in a somewhat uncomfortable alliance of the extremely wealthy, the hateful, and the deranged. Occasionally, the conservative base is checked by its savvier political operatives, like Manning. When this happens, real ideologues, like Byfield, find themselves at arm’s length from power and influence. But they’re never entirely pushed to the fringes.

We see this with Reform’s descendent, the modern Conservative Party. The party seldom struggles for funds — no matter its electoral prospects — but depends on a membership whose views on social issues sit far outside the mainstream. Fundamentally, the balance is unstable — and the Right’s base of fundamentalists and zealots inevitably becomes a threat to the working class, both inside and outside of its ideological precincts.

The case of Byfield shows how useful radical right positions are to the advancement of establishment conservatism — even if they need to be abandoned at wine and cheese functions. The fringe right is not a bug — it’s a feature of conservative parties and the Right more broadly.